Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Most Important Story Ever Told?

There's a really interesting difference between stories and photographs. Photos aren't very selective about what they capture. Take a photo of you and your mates on a night out and there'll always be bits in it that you weren't really interested in. You'll have snippets of other people on the dance floor, the edges of the bar, even someone photo-bombing. Even if you cropped the photo so that it only showed your mates and some of the background venue, you'd still have excess. You surely wouldn't be too interested in your mate's little finger. The photo isn't supposed to be a photo of your mate's smallest digit, it's a photo about the group of you having fun. Yet there it is in the photo all the same.

Stories aren't like that - they don't reveal every detail of what's going on. In fact it is the mark of a bad story if it tells you too much needless trivia. Harry Potter would have hardly benefited had every trip to the loo been recorded (I recall a fair bit of bathroom time in Chamber of Secrets but nothing on an excessive scale). Of course JK Rowling does not intend us to think that her characters never heard nature call. It's just that the story doesn't need to go there. It isn't about that. Such things are not important in the Potter universe and the story draws attention to that which is.

We can learn a lot about what a person thinks is important by the kind of stories they like to hear. Tell the same story to two different people and one may want to hear about the kind of world the main characters live in: it's terrain, politics and history - and the other may want to know about the thoughts and feelings of the characters. But more than that, I think that what a people sees as important, what values they have, is determined by what grand story they believe about the world.

If you think that life is about doing good things to please God then you are likely to place a large emphasis on keeping rules. If you think that life is about loving your friends and family, then you'll place a large emphasis on spending time with them and maybe spoiling them. If you think that life is about being one with nature then you'll probably think animal rights are particularly important.

The advert on the left is one I found while I was wondering around Northampton town centre struggling to fit all my Christmas shopping into one afternoon. As a matter of fact I'd seen it before and found it quite striking. Upon seeing it again, I knew I needed to a get a snap of it (which was kind of awkward to explain to the girl who was behind the stall promoting the shop.) It is striking because of how explicitly it promotes the view that what is really important is ourselves - that the grand story of the universe is about the individual. In fact I took a couple other pics that afternoon of adverts that trumpeted the importance of the individual consumer - their rights and desires. This sort of message is everywhere. I've heard our era described in a few places as "the century of the self", or in words to that effect.

Now probably most of us feel a little uneasy about the boldness of this advert. We wouldn't really want to affirm that its message is what we actually believe. But perhaps we're not so far from it as we think. After all, marketing that conveys this self-affirming sentiment is common-place ("you're worth it", the iPod and iMax, "my Northampton county council", Facebook's encouragement to use timeline to share your story). Do we really think that these adverts exist without reflecting the broad cultural mood? Of course, we all think we're the ones that adverts are wasted on. We don't really think we base our consumer choices on the obviously false notions that adverts portray. After all who buys Lynx deodorant honestly thinking that after a couple sprays flocks of women will be fighting over you? But the advert isn't asking you to accept that what it portrays is literally true. It merely connects the product with a certain sentiment or feeling we hold unconsciously. Nobody thinks that advertising gets them. Have you ever heard somebody say "yeah I bought that car because the advert made it look really cool"? Of course not. But since companies probably aren't spending millions on advertising for no reason, I'd say we don't know ourselves very well. I think we really do believe that the self is one of, if not the crucial character in the grand story of life.

The Western Grand Narrative

The master narrative held in the modern west is a historically perculiar one. It is that fundamentally there are individuals, not communities. And what life is about is these individuals discovering who they truly are deep down, or constructing who they truly are, and then living out this identity as authentically as possible, staying true to oneself, expressing oneself.

Living with this sort of narrative has many consequences and not all of them I fully understand. But many of the ones I do understand I have experienced as negative. While I'm not sure I'd advocate a full-blown collectivism as a corrective, I am certain that the amount of emphasis given to the self in the West is destructive. 

First of all we should understand that traditional wisdom has always been against emphasising the self over the other. Love is seen as laying down one's rights to serve the other, not stubbornly asserting one's rights to self-expression. I take my life experience as having shown the light in this wisdom. But there is also a philosophical insight that might explicitly expose self-focus as self-defeating (pun not intended!) Consider that we tend to be happy (at least briefly) when something has gone as we wanted it to. We are happy when our team wins at football, or when our daughter gets good exam results, or when our friend marries a worthy lover. But when the satisfaction of the self's desires is the wanted thing, then you'll only be happy if you're satisfied. But surely, a large part of the self's desires just is to be happy. In which case, you'll only be happy if you're happy, and so happiness is impossible to attain unless you already have it!

The other drawbacks I'm not sure I can demonstrate at this stage, but I've certainly felt their sting in my life. Because this modern form of identity is inward-looking and primally disconnected from others and the external world (as opposed to outward-looking views of identity held by the majority of people who have ever lived) I've fell into excessive introspection (examination of self) that has often left me feeling lost and utterly unsure of what I actually think or feel. This disconnect has also made it hard to truly experience the world outside the mind as really there, impacting reality. As such what really brings a sense of being alive is just internal emotional states - high doses of intense feeling, drawn from music or some other art. It is what Andrew Fellows calls "waking the ghost" of the modern self and the principle of "intensity over profundity." The pain of others expressed through art is used merely as a drug to bring an emotional high. But perhaps the worst thing of all is how other people end up used merely as a mirror to reflect back positive images of yourself. Concerned with expressing the right sense of self, everything becomes centred around how you appear to others. When they see you favourably, you feel great, when they don't you feel awful. And there's no proper engagement with them as human beings that have their own genuine concerns and feelings. In that social situation their purpose is to enable you to feel good about your self. All this troubles me significantly.

I want to live a deeper story. A narrative larger than myself that pulls me out of myself and put things in the proper perspective. I want to absord the Christian narrative better so that I see that I am not the main character. I play a very small part of something much much bigger - something that spans the whole of history and the cosmos. A story that is grand in scale and is ultimately about a person far more wonderful than I. A story that truly is the greatest and most important that could ever be told.

Friday, 5 August 2011

My New Blog: ApologiaPad

Initially I created thoughtful faith for a space to jot down ideas and arguments that I was experimenting with. For whatever reason this "space" was used instantly for a completely different purpose - the communication of apologetics without the jargon! A good purpose too in my opinion, though carried out with varying success.

Now I've created a blog to fulfill the purpose this one originally had. It's an apologetics notepad or sketchpad, hence the name "ApologiaPad" (Apologia being the Greek word apologetics is rooted from)... no iPad reference intended!

Whereas I try to make the posts here read well, the Pad's posts will be rough and ready with technical terms intact. If you can stomach that sort of deal check it out:

ApologiaPad

(Thought I'd try wordpress for giggles)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Apologetic Worth of Understanding Identity

The following is an article I wrote for the Student Apologetics Alliance, however since that website has shut down I thought it might be worth re-posting it here. 

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What is the most deeply prevalent worldview in western society? Naturalism you might say? Post-modernism? Presently I’ve been become convinced that what is more fundamental than even these is individualism. Don’t be fooled, individualism here doesn’t refer to a mere self-centredness, but to a distinctly modernist way of viewing identity and perhaps even goodness itself as located “within.” You hear individualism at work in expressions like “stay true to yourself” or “you know in your heart what is right.” I’d like to capture the essence of individualism in a series of neat propositions but being quite near the start of my journey to understand it, I’m as of yet unqualified. I feel that individualism, whatever precisely it is, is so deeply embedded in Western though that articulating it requires waking up out of a dream you didn’t know you were in. I find myself groggy and occasionally tempted to hit 'snooze'.

My first guide into exploring the whats and whys of individualism has been Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self – the Making of Modern Identity. It’s a fairly weighty tome that I haven’t yet finished [at the time of writing] but what I’ve read so far has deeply intrigued me with its apologetic significance. For instance Taylor argues that individualism is necessarily connected to a sense of what's good which has resulted in the modernist sensitivity to suffering in the administration of justice. I am instantly reminded of the strong repulsion felt by many, sceptics and Christians alike, at the apparent harshness of God’s judgments in history and in the afterlife. If indeed there is a connection between individualism and these offended moral intuitions then the apologist will do well to understand it. Perhaps a study of individualism will yield an opportunity to critique it and the objections to Christianity that result from it? What other typical objections might spring from an individualist perspective?

A more obvious benefit of becoming conversant in the ins and outs of individualism is an understanding of the views it is contrasted against. The Biblical social world, in contrast to our own, was collectivist – there was less emphasis placed on individuals and more on communities, participation in which constituted one’s identity. Understanding the collectivist mindset is therefore invaluable for Biblical exegesis (the interpretation of the text) and indeed exegesis seems to be the main undertaking where this sociological knowledge is wielded. But its relevance exceeds the project of merely understanding the Biblical text (and would do if only because this contributes apologetically to the resolution of “problem passages” that are grist for the sceptical mill.)

What if certain central doctrines of the Christian faith presuppose components of a worldview at odds with individualism? J.P. Holding, an apologist who is very savvy with the Biblical social data argues that the atonement presupposes an honour-shame dialectic that is largely perplexing to modern sensibilities (links to a basic exposition of the differences between a shame culture and our guilt culture as well as to JPH’s argument can be found at the bottom of this post.) If this is true (and it seems to me very plausibly so) then many questions arise. Is the honour-shame paradigm thus legitimised as the Scriptural position on identity and individual worth? Is the non-universality of an honour-shame understanding of an individual’s worth a challenge to this Biblical doctrine? Does individualism in any sense successfully refute these key premises presupposed by Biblical theology? What if individualism is a key factor that prevents that gospel from being clearly understood in Western culture? These are questions I can’t yet answer but feel deserve attention.

It seems to me that there is a wealth of activity the apologist can participate in by studying individualism and its historical peculiarity. Maybe the church will benefit in the future from its young defenders taking this task seriously now? 

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Passing the Baton (Finishing Relay)

Cheesy title but yes, Relay is over. Thank you so much for your support over the last ten months. Your financial contributions have helped me pay rent, eat and buy books (yay) amongst other more essential things. I even had enough to occasionally feed a student (understand that their taste buds are mercifully impoverished, allowing them to settle for whatever I passed off as cooking). Your prayers have helped me in ways I'm ignorant of this side of eternity but I thank you for them. I know I haven't been appreciative enough of you all. I thank you for your grace and servant-heartedness.

I guess some concluding thoughts would be appropriate, huh? Well here's some personal reflection on how I've grown and how God's used me in the Christian Unions this year...

Looking Back

It's a little hard to remember what my expectations of Relay were. I think I did it because it seemed like a natural next step to take after enjoying involvement with the CU committee so much; I don’t think I really considered how much it might change me or even (rather arrogantly) how much I might need to learn from doing it.

But learn I have. At the very least my attitude toward church and financial generosity have greatly improved. I now have a deeper desire to serve the church I'm involved with and when I bring home my first paycheck once I get a job, I want the first thing I think about to be how I'm going to use some of that money to help someone. Additionally I think I've become a much better listener and encourager. Whereas before I eagerly desired to steer any conversation toward my own thoughts and experiences, I am now much more prone to ask the other person questions that allow them to speak rather than myself.

I also think that my approach to evangelism and spirituality has become more balanced. While I'm still convinced that churches need to up their intellectual ante I recognise that my tendency has been to swing the other way, reducing Christian experience to the purely cognitive. I now see more legitimacy in discussing things like the beauty and desirability of Christianity.

Most importantly the first half of the year helped me truly appreciate the unconditional nature of God’s acceptance of me and the second half helped me understand the proper response to this as discipline and obedience. As a result I’ve been a lot less tempted to wallow in prideful self-pity after sin, and to repent instead. I’ve experienced some times of great thirst for holiness this year and I thank God for that. I think that prior to this year I found it really hard to hold both the Lordship of Christ and his absolute grace together in my head at once. They seemed almost contradictory but that tension has now been largely resolved. I would do well to keep reflecting on these lessons as I feel that during my time since Relay ended, I have found it hard to live in accordance with them. Christian living really is about returning to the gospel and reminding ourselves of its power!

So what impact do I think my involvement with the Christian Unions has had? In many ways it's hard to tell. Most visible changes in the life of a CU occur through what the committee are up to but I didn't spend much time working closely with them. Most of what I did was a bit more “quiet” and centred around individual relationships with the students and side-projects like Equip. While I think this kind of work is hugely important you are not always granted visible “results”. That said I do think all the students I've met with have visibly grown from the start of the year to the end. I've seen them grow more confident in speaking to their friends about Jesus, in the truth of the gospel, and their particular gifts. Certainly I can't claim credit for that, but if God has used me to contribute to their growth then that's great.

I hope also that the presence of Equip, the apologetics workshop, on both Keele and Stoke campus will have produced an understanding within the CU (or parts of it) that the intellectual matters surrounding Christian faith are serious and merit our attention, for the sake of the gospel. Whether this translates into the continuation of something like Equip over the next year or whether this understanding is just communicated within the student's relationships with one another doesn't ultimately matter, so long as it's there!

I really looking forward to staying in touch with the CUs over the next couple years and seeing the new ways they step out of their comfort zone to reach their friends with the gospel. I have a large emotional attachment to these communities and it's going to be hard knowing that I won't be sharing with them in the busyness of the next freshers' or mission week. It is a humbling reminder that our ministries are a small part of God's overall plan.

Working with UCCF and in particular, the Midlands team, has certainly been wonderful. Everyone is just so down to earth. As a ministry UCCF really values unity around the central truths of the gospel and I've come to value that even more. It's been a particular blessing to have Luke as my supervisor and Jason as my fellow Relay-er. While it hasn't been totally smooth sailing between us it has for the most part been pretty incredible. We all share some of the same sense of humour and also many convictions about how the gospel ought to shape our lives in the 21st century. I shall miss our little trio!

What's next?

I shall be spending the next year back at my parents and doing a normal job! I hope to save up enough money to begin a Master's degree the following academic year, within the area of Philosophy of Religion.

So if you could kindly extend a little more prayer in my favour, I'd love if you could pray for the following:

  • That I would be able to find employment
  • That I would not view this year as a “break” but a serious year of further spiritual growth.

I think I'll keep it short and sweet at two prayer points. Thank you so much! As I sign off I'll leave you with a flurry of memories from the last year that stand out to me...

- Arriving late with Jason to the first Relay conference. - Finding someone else who says “get involved” a lot. - Pretending I was a Mormon. - Pretending I was a Muslim. - Realising I don't really understand grace. - Feeding two freshers with a terribly bland Sainsburys basic pizza. - Not being very courteous in discussing eschatology on a team day. - Forming 'Spasms of Vomit' the fictional Relay death metal worship band. - Cheesy Christian disco. - Discussing the gospel and Islam with two Muslims every Friday in the pub. - Trying to remember what I'd done on a certain day for my monthly report because I hadn't written it down. - Telling Luke that I was all confused and sinful and stuff (more than once).

- Arriving late with Jason to the second Relay conference. - Discussing Nietzsche, Christianity and Capitalism with two sceptics in Bangor. -  Finding out I was supposed to give a talk to a bunch of angry atheists a day before the event. - Drinking in the Glebe with two Serbian Christians. - Hanging out with an ex Bosnian mafia member in my room. - Crying because I felt so stressed. - Crying cause I felt so scared. - Being really emo. - Throwing a Bible at Jamie's face. - Loving preparing a talk on the problem of suffering. - Asking whoever was about on campus what they'd like to ask God. - Wishing I was better organised. - Arriving a day late with Jason to New Word Alive.

- Arriving on time with Jason to the last Relay conference (only cause we got a lift!) - Endless predestination jokes during the lead-up to the Equip session on the topic (I was predestined to write that). - Playing scrabble and going to the cinema during a “supervision” with Luke. - Changing my views on the Bible and origins. - Getting angry at Wayne Grudem for his Calvinism. - Cheekily acquiring food from the staff reserves at Relay 3 then returning to ask for beer. - Playing baskateball. - Singing worship songs in a whiny Blink-182 voice. - Struggling to light candles on a breezy day and realising that their intended symbolism holds all the more for it. - Going with Jemma to answer questions on Christianity and homosexuality with a group of girls we didn't know. - Discovering the cool American diner in Hanley and insisting in having goodbye breakfasts there. - Scoring my second leaver's card from Stoke CU (lol).

Time to pass the baton!!!!


Saturday, 23 July 2011

On Being Honest About Being Less Than Fully Rational

(Yes, another tangent post.)

There are some odd tensions within our cultural values. There seems to co-exist both an emphasis on feelings and the personal subjective qualities of an experience and also an emphasis on, nay, a delight in, hard objective reason - the dispassionate search for truth that is unflinching toward even the most undesirable findings.

This latter attitude, probably a leftover from the Enlightenment, is considered a chief virtue in the world of philosophical religious debate. We all know that atheists often pride themselves on what they consider to be their piercing rational insight into the true nature of religion - a matter that in their eyes is confused by the logic-less wishful thinking of God-believers. But we theists give it back too. I have often been involved in discussions among Christians on the internet where we've derided the irrationality of atheist arguments and lamented the inability of our ideological opponents to think clearly enough to see the obvious strength of our position.

In the back-and-forth debate between bloggers and youtubers any sign of irrationality is quickly picked up on and shown to the world as evidence of the person's abject failure as a human being. The accused has committed the ultimate sin: being less than fully rational. (I exaggerate but if you've spent any time lurking around debate forums you'll hopefully see some truth in what I'm saying.) Ironically, placing such a large demand on people to be perfectly rational, and in turn such a high personal cost if one is found out not to be, both in terms of the detriment it causes to one's image of oneself and the shame one faces within the community, actually makes people more likely to be irrational.

It's counter-intuitive but from the reading I've done recently on the psychology of human rationality, it seems undeniably true. In this paper Maarten Boudry and Johan Braeckman explore how it is that humans are able to persist in believing things despite the fact that they are subject to obvious counter-evidence. How is it, for instance, that despite Harold Camping's prediction that the world would end on May 21st being quite obviously falsified, he and some of his followers continue to think that in some sense his prediction was validated? Do Camping and his faithful simply lack a concern for rationality? Are they happy to ignore evidence without batting an eyelid? This sort of explanation of their behaviour is na├»ve. The persistence of such beliefs is not achieved by ignoring reason. It is achieved by using it to rationalise – some reason is construed as to why counter-evidence doesn't actually pose a problem for the challenged belief. The prophecy wasn't a failure after all you see! It was a spiritual event, not one that occurred in space and time! The full end of the world stuff will happen later …

As contrived as those explanations sound, what they demonstrate is a concern for being rational. The fact that a person thinks that the counter-evidence needs explaining shows that the person considers consistency and rationality as good, desirable traits. It is painful to be exposed as non-objective, as uncritical and silly. A person will thus persist in rationalisation both because he/she has a vested interest in preserving the belief under attack AND a vested interest in being a rational human being.

In the book 'I Told Me So', Gregg Elshof takes a look at self-deception techniques from a Christian perspective. He argues (I think, rightly) that we find it hard in our culture to accept that we might be able to successfully deceive ourselves because we place such a high value on personal honesty and authenticity. In fact, that because we value these things so highly we are more prone to self-deception since there is a high personal cost involved in being exposed as inauthentic. In other words because we have such a high vested interest in not being self-deceivers, we are prone to deceiving ourselves about our own self-deception!

It makes sense that a similar logic would play out when we have such a high vested interest in being coolly reasoned, critically aware persons. Because it would hurt so much to see ourselves as less than fully rational, and for other people to see that too, we rationalise away the evidence that we are rationalising! The more we care about being rational the harder it is to see that we're being irrational.

Is this a license to be truly unconcerned with rational thinking? Certainly not. It is not good to be irrational. It is not good to believe falsely. Not only does truth seem good for its own sake, but there can also be harmful consequences to having incorrect beliefs (if you think a cliff edge is actually a continuous piece of land and you try to walk on it, you'll be in trouble!) The corrective is not to abandon a concern for rationality, but to be more honest and humble about the rational shortcomings of all of us. We need to stop demonising irrationality as the unforgivable sin. From a purely Christian perspective, we need to understand that our sinful nature does not stop short of our rationality, but that we all lack intellectual virtues. We need to cultivate an environment where people actually feel free to confess their irrationality as well as their adultery or alcoholism. We need to extend some grace.

The results can only be positive. Not only will we be more able to see the rational shortcomings in ourselves and so improve upon them, but we leave space for people to admit that they have been wrong. How much harder do we make it for people to change their worldview when we place such a high social penalty on being imperfect thinkers? Although I think this is advice Christians need to heed, I dare say that atheist communities may need it especially. So much of the atheist self-image seems built on being rational and so much of their vitriol against Christians involves accusations of delusion. This sort of environment produces a very high cost for seeing rational weakness in yourself and your ideological position and thus places one at very high risk of self-deception. An atheist community that really cares about honest rational enquiry ought to make it easier for these values to be practised.

In the interest of being contributive toward a change in cultural attitude, allow me to make a confession: I don't think my conversion to Christianity was perfectly rational. For a long time I interpreted my conversion as the result of a simple “going where the evidence leads” conclusion. Having read about self-deception techniques and cognitive bias, and spotting them in myself, I cannot sustain that picture (our own interpretations of why we believe things are often wrong). And to be honest, that's been painful to admit to myself. I studied philosophy, an intellectual discipline. Many of my peers see me as a smart person. I have a high vested interest in being rational.

But I know that I have often spent more time being critical of arguments that challenge my beliefs rather than those that support it. I know I've more often sought out material that supports my beliefs, rather than material that challenges them. I know that there are emotional interests that have fuelled these behaviours. So I am less than fully rational. How much less I'm not sure. It's hard to read yourself. But I am definitely not some sort of disinterested rational robot. I doubt anyone is when it comes to the deepest matters of life. Again, skeptics, don't think you're immune. One can be attached and emotionally invested in atheism as much as Christianity or any other worldview.

All this isn't to say that I don't think Christianity is true, or has good arguments and evidence for it. The very reason why I've been susceptible to this kind of behaviour is because I value critical thought. Christianity is able to make sense to me and still does. All I'm saying is that I've succumbed to biases. It's not great, I'm not proud of it, but there ya go. I'm now trying to develop the intellectual virtues that at times I've lacked.

I hope you'll be encouraged to be honest with yourself about your own less-than-perfect rationality. 

God forgive us.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Why I'm An Atheist (In Some Possible World)


I've got some serious posts in the works but this one is just for fun. I came across “An Ideological Turing Test” on the Friendly Atheist blog. The test is all about seeing how well we understand our opposing world-views. Some Christians were asked to respond to a few questions about religion pretending to be atheists and vice versa. Then they took some genuine Christian and atheist responses, mixed 'em together and put them online to see whether we can spot the fakers. So far we've just been asked to distinguish between the real and fake atheist responses. I don't think the results will be particularly significant, but it's an interesting research idea and also a fair bit of fun. It's also intriguing that many atheists commenting on the blog couldn't believe that the Christians were able to understand atheism so well and yet not be atheist themselves!

The test got me thinking about what I find most convincing about the case for atheism and what angle I'd take if I were playing devil's advocate against a Christian. So here's how I'd respond to the questions given in the Ideological Turing Test.


What's your best reason for being an atheist?

To be honest I don't have a “best” single knock-down argument against theism. Rather I'm persuaded of a more cumulative and probabilistic case.

I believe that the facts of evolution and the facts about the extent and intensity of suffering in the world do not strictly disprove the existence of God, but are nonetheless better explained by atheism (and naturalism in particular.) Moreover the existence of God is an area in which intellectuals throughout the history of mankind have disagreed over. It seems to me that if God were real, and he wanted us to know him (as the 'great' monotheistic religions claim) he would make his existence a lot more obvious. Thus the lack of consensus on the matter counts as evidence against God's existence. Claims that persons are simply “suppressing the truth” strike me as ad hoc and counter to the face value appearance of the matter.

In terms of why I disbelieve Christianity in particular, I find that while its founding Israelite theology is somewhat distinctive from its Ancient Near-Eastern contemporaries, it is still suspiciously similar in many areas – enough to doubt the claim that it was revealed by the transcendent creator God. In addition while arguments supporting the historicity of the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life are not ridiculous, they fail to establish a level of historical certainty high enough to warrant an absolute trust in the God of Christianity. After all this God supposedly demands you to surrender your life to him, and I'd want be extraordinarily sure of the existence and goodness of such a God before I could do that. The insufficiency of the evidence available to support such a trust actually acts as evidence against the existence of the Christian God. Moreover as we venture back into the Old Testament's historical claims, we find they get more and more dubious/counter to the available evidence. 

What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to believe in God? If you believed in some kind of god, what kind of evidence would be necessary to convince you to join a particular religion?

I would believe in God if all things considered God's existence seemed more probable than not. As for a particular religion, things get trickier. All religions seem to demand a high level of devotion which I think increases the level of evidence needed to justify. Merely believing in God doesn't require as much justifying evidence as basing your life around God. Maybe if I had some sort of unambiguous visitation from God in which the true religion was pointed out to me I'd go for it. But even then I could see myself doubting the veracity of that visitation at a later point. After all there are plenty of people throughout history who have claimed such an unambiguous revelation, but their teachings all conflict. I think if God existed he/she would know what evidence would convince me and would provide it. Maybe God will do so for me in the future? Maybe not.

When you have ethical and moral disputes with other people, what do you appeal to? What metric do you use to examine your moral intuitions/cultural sensibilities/etc?

First of all, I'm no moral relativist, I do believe there are facts about what is morally right or wrong to do. I don't claim to have a fully worked out meta-ethical account of what “grounds” those facts but I don't think the majority of religious people do either. I believe moral intuitions generally confer knowledge of moral truths but an observance of the harmful/beneficial consequences of an action can lend support or counter-evidence to a given intuition. In ethical disputes I try to appeal to the basic moral intuitions of others or demonstrate the harmful or beneficial consequences of an action to make an appeal on those grounds.

I am unconvinced of arguments that attempt to show that if God does not exist then objective moral duties do not exist. I have yet to see a theist provide an analysis of what conditions are necessary to entail objective moral duties are and then carefully explain why atheism necessarily entails the lack of those conditions. Until that is done I see no reason to abandon my belief in objective moral duties given that they are supported by so strong an intuition as to their reality.

Why is religion so persistent? We have had political revolutions, artistic revolutions, an industrial revolution, and also religious reformations of several kinds, but religion endures. Does this not suggest its basic truth?

The question of why religion persists doesn't interest me greatly but I have some thoughts on the matter. It seems clear that the human brain has an agency detector that can be a little “over-active”, allowing us to attribute natural occurrences to the intentional actions of an agent. E.g. the village is flooded and the agency detector senses that the act was caused by somebody angry. And because it takes a lot of power to cause a flood, the angry person is very powerful and thus … a god. I understand however that the theist will interpret the data differently and merely say that the agency detector was designed by God precisely to produce true beliefs about God's actions. This is part of why I think the question of religion's persistence is uninteresting. The data is inconclusive in regards to the truth of any religion.

Additionally in a lot of cultures one's own sense of identity is intrinsically bound up in the practised religion. When this is so I imagine that the falsehood of the religion appears unintelligible, for it would literally destroy who you are and would render the world meaningless. But this doesn't suggest anything about the truth of religion so much as it reveals something interesting about human culture.


Feel free to post your own answers, they needn't be as long. If you're a atheist why not think about how you'd answer from a Christian perspective:

What is your best reason for being a Christian?
What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to disbelieve in God? Or what kind of evidence would persuade you to join another religion?
When you have ethical and moral disputes with other people, what do you appeal to? What metric do you use to examine your moral intuitions/cultural sensibilities etc?
Why is religion so persistent? We have had political revolutions, artistic revolutions, an industrial revolution, and also religious reformations of many kinds, yet religion endures. Does this not suggest its basic truth?

Try and present the most intelligent Christian response that you can!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Becoming a Christian = Becoming a sheep?

Although I said a couple entries ago that I'd be blogging more frequently that obviously hasn't come to pass. But to be honest I'd rather crack on with an interesting question than excuse myself so let's move on from my inactivity!

A few months back now (*whistles*) I began writing on the beauty of Christianity. Is Christianity something we should desire to be true, or is it instead a rather loathsome message? In this entry I'd like to continue this theme by looking at the claim that becoming a Christian involves a loss of something particularly desirable, namely, your individuality. Does becoming a Christian entail being assimilated into the faceless folds of the faithful? Doesn't even Jesus compare those who follow him to sheep?

It's a concern that has a particular pull on us as modern Westerners; we are people who place an extraordinary emphasis on individuality. Although folks in the Biblical world (and the ancient world in general) wouldn't have shared this concern, I don't think the Christian message ought to make us fret in this regard.

Christians are not called to be sheep in the derogatory way that metaphor now expresses. It's highly improbable that Jesus' use of the metaphor was intended to teach his followers that they are all to be exactly the same. Like much of what Jesus said the metaphor serves to reveal something about him, in this case, that he is like a shepherd - the person who cares for and directs believers. Moreover it is presumed that those who follow him do so because they have been personally persuaded of Jesus' power and love, not because they have blindly followed the crowd (see link at bottom for discussion on whether faith is rational.) Throughout the New Testament there is the expectation that believers have their own individual trust in God, merely being part of a God-believing congregation or family is not enough. The apostle Paul says that it is by believing in your own heart and confessing with your own mouth that Jesus is Lord which admits you into salvation (Romans 10:9).

In fact the New Testament teaching explicitly denies that all Christians ought to be identical. We are told to be united, but not indistinguishable! Paul compares groups of Christians to how a body works and calls them the body of Christ. Check it out:

“the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:14-20)

Here it is rightly affirmed that different people bring different personalities, skills, and gifts into the mix.

Another fact that preserves the individuality of Christians is the (perhaps surprising) level of freedom given to Christians to work out what they believe and what they ought to do to please God.

A Christian does not have to sign an already worked out series of propositions about everything the Bible touches on, from the natural world, to politics, in order to enjoy God's free gift of salvation. Exactly how much a person does need to know is a matter for debate but the Biblical focus definitely seems to linger just around who Jesus is and what he did (see again Romans 10:9, and also 1 Corinthians 15:3-6). This is quite a minimal standard! Even the great creeds that the Christian community eventually developed to summarise the correct way to understand the message of Jesus and his disciples leaves large room for debate on a whole host of issues. I tell you, I spend as much time debating issues (theological or otherwise) with Christians as I do with non-Christians!

And when it comes to how you live your life, believers are constantly admonished to grow in wisdom in applying the more general moral principles that are laid out. In other words you are trusted to be responsible in figuring out a lot of stuff yourself! There are entire books in the Bible dedicated to the flourishing of wisdom (of particular interest is the book of proverbs).

It seems to me that a person should not be put off from Christianity by a fear that they will have to lose who they are. There is no pre-set Christian dress code, or pre-set Christian music, or pre-set Christian sports etc. Christians are some of the most varied and 'colourful' people I know. You are encouraged to bring your uniqueness into the Christian community. That said, individual expression is not the Christian's chief virtue. That would be love. A Christian is expected to love God and his community before themselves. There is much in the Christian worldview that confronts our individualism. We are told to no longer see ourselves primarily as isolated individuals, but rather as a living organism of people (plural!) who mutually submit to one another in radical service. Our merits are merits for others. Our failings fail others.

This vision of life doesn't destroy individuality, but it does dethrone it. And the more I find myself in line with it, the more I find myself freed by it. 

(Thoughts on the rationality of faith.) 

Monday, 9 May 2011

Relay Update: 09/05/2011

What is Relay? Relay is a discipleship program I'm doing this year and you can read all about it here. I'll be updating the blog from time to time with updates for all the people partnering with me during the year. And this  is one of those updates!

First of all, apologies for not getting this update done sooner. I don't really have any excuses ...

But let's move on from my failures and on to your merits. See, thanks to you incredibly generous folks I've got enough money to live on until the end of Relay. Honestly I haven't really known how to respond. It's been pretty humbling. I know I don't deserve what I've been given and there's nothing I can do to "pay you back" so I'll just say "thank you,"  accepting your (and God's) grace.

Now let me belatedly update you.

The last couple months have been the slowest of the new year. Bear in mind January and February were intensely busy so slowest doesn't actually translate as slow. Rather, March and April saw me return to a more normal routine, one without mission weeks and talks in between every breath.

Equip, the weekly apologetics workshop I run, has still been going at both Stoke and Keele. In the last month we've looked at stuff like evidence for the resurrection, the relationship between science and Christianity, and the argument from evil. It's been a challenge to work through this material in a way that encourages discussion and thoughtful interaction rather than passive absorbtion in a lecture-style format. I don't think I've always avoided the latter but hopefully I'll be able to up the creative ante for the sessions this semester.

I've managed to restart some individual Bible studies with students during which I've encountered challenges ranging from intellectual doubts about whether it is still credible to believe in the soul to more 'pastoral' issues involving how we deal with shame and guilt over sin. I've sort of bungled my way through it all with the hope that God has used some of what I've said to encourage.

My elective study this term has focussed on the question of what exactly this beast known as 'evangelicalism' is and so I've dipped into some church history. Not being part of any particularly traditional churches I've probably lacked a sense of the narrative of Christian history, a story I've really enjoyed getting in touch with. I've focussed on the development of theology more than anything and it's inspired me to make a difference in the intellectual arena of 21st century western thought.

Like many other Relays I spent a week in April stewarding at New Word Alive an evangelical conference in Wales. Not being one who's particularly practically minded, nor someone with an abundance of common sense and initiative, I was a little worried about how it would go. As it happens, no one under my care was guided to a ravine rather than a loo, nor trampled to death rather than allocated a seat. In addition the team I was working with were lovely and were happy to flit from banter to busting chops in theological discussion.

Of course one of the advantages of stewarding is that you get to sit in on some of the teaching sessions and boy were some of them powerful. Rico Tice (creator of the Christianity Explored course) delivered a devastating sermon on Hebrews 11 that set out to counter some of the latent 'prosperity gospel' theology we hide in our thinking. He reminded us of the call to suffer and potentially suffer gravely for the gospel. Another highlight was an interview with Ben Kwashi, a Nigerian archbishop. He told of us his experiences growing the church in Nigeria and the persecution he and his family have endured (including both tragic and miraculous outcomes). He was truly a beautiful Godly man and his story left in me in tears.

I feel positive about the time remaining, and I hope mostly to just invest good time into the students here before I leave. I also feel hungry to grow in holiness and I thank God for that. Could you please pray...

... that I would be wise in how I handle my money
... that I would be disciplined in implemented my desire to grow in holiness
... that I would manage my time well so as to spend quality time with people here
... that Stoke committee's year-planning meeting would be productive
 
Thank you and God bless

Martin

P.S. If you want to get a taste of what Equip is like, there is a recording of a session on Handling the Bible and Worldviews available on Stoke CU's website. It was a session I did during the CU's main meeting (I was supposed to do something else but for various reasons I didn't have the time to prepare it!) Here's the link.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Quashing the human experience?

A couple entries back I asked the question "is Christianity beautiful?" No doubt there are many people who'd answer in the negative and I think the impression that Christianity is oppressive may be one reason driving this. I can recall a discussion about Christianity emerging on a music forum I used to participate in and many folk were chipping in their reasons for their belief or disbelief. One guy's response has stuck with me ever since. He said that Christianity stifled, or quashed, or generally demeaned the human experience. What he meant by the human experience he didn't specify, but I took his complaint as suggesting that there are certain activities, emotions, or engagements which when carried out, deeply enrich or fulfill a person's life, but which Christianity forbids or discourages.

A wide-spanning complaint indeed but I think so on the money in terms of how Christianity is popularly perceived; Christians are backwards, sheltered, restricted (and wanting to restrict you), aloof, joyless, prudish, and pathetic. They. need. liberating.

Perhaps there are professing Christians for whom this is true. Perhaps there are entire Christian institutions for which this is true. After all stereotypes don't emerge without reason. My concern isn't with them however, but with the Christian message itself, the core of it I mean, what Christians would call "the gospel". Is the gospel conducive to this sort of ugliness?

To answer this question we'll need to unpack the gospel's content alongside the various aspects of the objection at hand. The whole gospel won't be visible at once. They'll be loose ends. But as we keep coming back to it bit by bit, together the layers will form a discernible whole. So let's begin.   
 
The weight of moral obligation

Y'know I really hate olives.

No, really. Can't stand 'em. In the past my parents would try and sway me to them by elucidating their nutritional benefits; "they have vitamin so and so, and are X amount of your weekly this." Although I understood that they were good for me, I just plain disliked them and so to eat them was a real chore. It required much mustering of will, and it was generally quite burdensome to my dinner table experience. I often failed to carry out my dietry duty and left them on my plate.

Isn't so much of our moral experience like this? We often know what's good for us, but what's good seems so contrary to our desires. Oh I know I shouldn't talk to her again, I'm a married man. But she is so pretty ... and I know she wants me ... Oh I know I should give this change to the Oxfam lady outside. But I really want that CD ... Our own moral codes are hard enough to live by, let alone the code of a perfectly good, morally flawless superbeing. With this sort of experience being normal we can hardly be blamed for thinking that the ethical demands of Christian living would crush us more than enrich us.

The gospel has much to say to this fear but one thing the gospel offers is a tongue transplant. What if I were given a new tongue that loved the taste of olives? Would I not gladly consume them? Surely I would. What then, if I were given a moral 'tongue transplant'? A new set of attitudes and dispositions that delighted in doing good and pleasing God? Would I not gladly follow God's commands? You'd have to say, surely yes.

Such a tongue transplant is exactly what the gospel promises. The gospel says, "trust in Jesus and you will literally be made a new man." That's not to say that your individuality will be destroyed. Rather your heart's attitude toward God will change from aversion to affection. Something very real changes in your being. One of the Biblical authors describes the effect of being a new creation like this:

You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness (Romans 5:18)  

You might think the use of the word slave describes exactly the state of oppression you fear! The word slave didn't mean the same thing then as it does to us but at any rate the imagery describes how the pull towards what doing what we know is wrong is instead exchanged with a pull toward doing what we know is right. And if what is right is what we delight in and what is right is also good for us then it is a joyous "slavery" indeed. But does this actually happen? Or is it just an empty promise? 

Well the truth of this promise hinges on whether Jesus really rose from the dead bringing new life or not. Although I think the evidence for the actuality of that event is good, I shan't be exploring that here. What I will say is that my experience is consistent with this promise. That isn't to say I always do the right thing. Old habits die hard and other desires can loom strong. But I do desire to please God. And sometimes this desire takes me by surprise.

A couple years ago I was in love with a girl. I was blessed enough to have her return the affection! But after being in relationship together, while our affections remained we considered it would be wise to split up. Being a tad silly I didn't let go of her in my heart. She, being a tad wiser, let go of me! She was also blessed a few months after with another partner. When I found out about this I was still very much in love with her. Needless to say, "ouch" and my own fault really. I can recall not too long afterwards attending a church service with them also being present. Seeing them provoked all sorts of bitterness and animosity within me. I stewed in this for the first ten or so minutes of the service. And then the time of worship began. As I sang praise to God my attitude instantly changed. Not to merely being okay with them being there, but being happy. Not only being happy, but wanting to do good to them, to see them prosper and do well. At attitude like Jesus'.

I'll close this part by sharing one of Jesus' parables to ponder over.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13:44)     

Friday, 4 March 2011

Relay Update: 04/03/11

What is Relay? Relay is a discipleship program I'm doing this year and you can read all about it here. I'll be updating the blog from time to time with updates for all the people partnering with me during the year. And this is one of those updates!

Phew. What a month February has been. Your prayers, financial support, and general encouragement have been needed. Thank you. Please keep praying for me. I'm tired and I know I need God's help to continue working with energy and joy.

I've spent nearly all of this month involved with mission weeks which are weeks of events Christian Unions put on to allow people to engage with Christianity and make a choice regarding it. Typically mission weeks are made up of lunch time events where free food is given away and a talk is given on some hot issue (like science or suffering), and then there are events in the evening that provide a more direct presentation of the gospel. In the spare time the CU will be busy flyering for the events, praying, conducting questionaires and chatting to people on campus about their thoughts on Jesus.

Although Relay workers help out with the missions at their own CUs they also get to go away and help out other CUs, so me and Jason headed to Bangor in North Wales along with Luke who was their main speaker for the week. Straight off the back of this week was Stoke's/Crewe's mission and then the week after was Keele's so you can see why I'm a little dead right now! What were the highlights you ask? Good question...

Bangor Mission Week
Absolutely loved staying here but I think the highlight for me was going around asking students "if you could ask God one question, what would it be?" So many honest conversations followed with people wondering about the fate of lost loved ones, the chance of immortality, the necessity of Jesus, and the reasons behind our Christian faith. I ended up chatting to Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Socialists, Agnostics, you name it. I was encouraged to see that Britain is not as closed off to the gospel as we sometimes believe. One lady even agreed to meet in a reading group to examine Mark's account of Jesus. Amazing.

Stoke Mission Week
Stoke have had a hard year struggling to get people to attend and commit to the vision. Some of these struggles showed up again during the week but it was also really encouraging to see how many people brought their friends to the free buffet event. There is great promise in this place and I can't wait to see what the new committee that have just stepped in will do here.

Keele Mission Week
Lunch time events have previously not been very successful at Keele but they were much more effective this year. There were a couple issues with food and the Student Union but they didn't throw us and more importantly people turned up and really engaged with the talk material. Myself, Jason, and Luke sat down with a few of the folks that turned up and chatted for a good half hour afterwards on the problem of suffering and other questions on the gospel and life generally. Lindsay Brown, a man with an incredible amount of experience in student mission was the main speaker and he delivered a powerful and meaty talk at the Wednesday event on the evidence for Jesus and the resurrection. I know many people were deeply challenged and encouraged by it. It was also a time of cross-cultural exchange as two Serbian students and a Bosnian Pastor (and ex-mafia member) served the CU alongside us and shared their experiences of evangelising in their home countries.

There really are too many stories to recount from the past weeks but those are some of the ones that loom large in my mind. To my knowledge we didn't see any professions of faith during the weeks, but we can pray that seeds planted will grow. I'm aware how trite that phrase can become so I hope you'll pray that we actually trust that and not throw it out as a token consolation to ease a sense of disappointment.

Honestly though there are times this month where I've burnt out. I know that much of my work has been motivated by desiring significance and acceptance from my achievements rather than accepting Christ's unconditional love for me. I've done several talks this month and led several apologetics workshops too. They all received positive feedback but they wearied me. I put too much pressure on myself and the workload increased to a point where I actually broke down and cried one Tuesday morning. My attitude has been pride-driven and self-destructive, so please pray that I would find security in Christ. I'm struggling to get back into that place.

What I'm excited for
Both Keele and Stoke have changed over their committees so here begins a new CU year effectively. Stoke committee attended a training conference last weekend for new student leaders in their shoes and I was so pleased to see them inspired by the gospel and reflecting critically on how the CU can share it effectively and creatively.  

With an eye to the future, I'd love to suggest some things you could pray for...

Please pray that I will find my confidence and security in no other place than in Christ
Please pray that I will rest and trust the CUs to God
Please pray that the new committees would keep the gospel central
Please pray that they would not assume that how CU currently is is how CU needs to be
Please pray that those impacted by the mission weeks would eventually become disciples of Christ
Please pray that I will be financially provided for

I know the last prayer is always there but I'm basically living off UCCF's emergency supply. Because of various circumstances I don't have many people sponsoring me. I you could please consider partnering with me financially, I'd be most grateful. You can download the form to do so here. Thanks so much to those who have already supported me financially.

God bless and much love,

Martin

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Opening up the blogosphere

I never really read any blogs before creating my own. Now my google reader has a healthy dose of subscriptions that prolong my well-meaning "I'll just check facebook" sessions on the net. Until recently the blogroll here has been dedicated to sources on Christian apologetics/philosophy but now there's two I'd like to plug that extend the topic horizon.

5p3nc3 - http://5p3nc3.wordpress.com/  

My housemate Spence is an absolute class-A legend. He's also mentally disturbed which ought to result in social dysfunction, but for some strange God-endowed reason in Spence this results in the ability to spew the most logically unconnected utterances together into a strained communion of mirth and puzzlement. It's "random" with all the punch that word carried before it became an over used cover-up for bland eccentricity. Anyhoo, at some point Spence's mind spilt out all over the internet and ever since he's received pleas begging him to at least sweep it all up into one place. He's finally obliged and I think the outcome deserves a least a timid glance.

Christian Union Blog - http://christianunions.blogspot.com/

Anyone who's read my Relay updates will know that I'm heavily involved with Christian Unions, which are student-led groups that exist to give university folks the chance to hear about Jesus and make up their mind about him. Luke oversees the support of the CUs in the patch I work in and he's started a blog for news about what the CUs in the area are doing and for articles on evangelism and discipleship in a student context. He's got a few years of both student work and journalism behind him so it should be a quality read. Check it, yo.       

Monday, 14 February 2011

Is Christianity ugly?

The series on God's policy of communication is at a close, so time for something new. Something quite new in fact. Time to look at the beauty of Christianity. Or at least, time to ask the question, is it beatiful? Or is it instead ugly, repulsive, diseased, sickly, repressive, something that taints and chokes, rather than frees and releases life? Reflection on this matter has been inspired largely by discussing it with my Relay supervisor, Luke and by hearing him deliver talks on the subject.

I ask you now, whether you are a Christian or non-Christian, do you think Christianity is beautiful? How do you think your attitude towards it would change if you thought it was?

If you think it ugly I ask you to reflect on what I'll be sharing in the next few entries. I can sympathise. I think there are many ugly Christianities out there. Many utterly sickening, heart-wrenchingly gross Christianities. But I'm convinced the ugly ones aren't the real deal. It is like a beautiful portrait has had ink careless dashed across it from all directions, obscuring the true spectacle. I hope that in the next few entries some of the murkiness will be cleared away, and what will be underneath will draw your gaze and stop your breath.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

So how do we find God's will for our lives?

Having spent some time seeing what the Bible does NOT teach about discerning God's will for our lives, the question naturally arises, how are we supposed to discern God's will for our lives? What I'll say is really a quick summary of the position put forth in 'Decision Making and the Will of God'. You can read a more in-depth summary of this position by the authors on their website over here. If you have a deep interest in this subject I suggest looking into those resources.

The first thing to recognise is that while God does have a plan for our lives which includes things like who we'll marry and what career we'll pursue, nowhere does he promise to tell us this plan in advance. This is the kind of thing we know only as it happens. Are we left without guidance then? How are we to make decisions that please God?

We should acknowledge that God's moral will is sufficiently revealed in the Bible

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Our first course of action is to make sure that our choices allign with God's moral will - that we do not do anything that he has commanded against. This is the first filter that narrows our viable choices down. But what about when several options are available, of which none are morally forbidden? What if going to college or pursuing an apprenticeship are both on the table, and none would have immoral consequences? What does God expects of us?

Well, God gives us FREEDOM to choose, with the expectation that we'll use our freedom responsibly. He expects us to use our freedom to efficiently pursue spiritual goals.

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Jesus' words in Matthew 6:28-33)

So how do you decide whether you should go to college or go for an apprenticeship? Well think with wisdom: which will be most beneficial for God's people and to the kindgom or which will produce the most goodness? And consider also, which is best suited to my talents? Which would I enjoy? Yes, desire can factor into it. If you are contemplating two different jobs, one of which you hate, why go for that? It is hard to perform a job well if you loathe it. If you enjoy it you will naturally put more effort and concentration into it.

Weighing these factors together can be tough but God has given us the privilege of being responsible agents. It is good that we are not mere puppets needing explicit commands for every smallest action. We have more dignity than that.

This then is a Godly decision making process. Could God give us special communication telling us to pursue a particular job? Yes, absolutely. Has he promised to? No. But if he does do it, it will be CLEAR. Don't frustrate yourself by trying to analyse your inner life and outer circumstances to discern messages from God. He revealed his will for us sufficiently in the Bible so we could know him. What a blessing! We should have such a deep appreciation for God's Word.

Be cautioned however that making decisions in this way doesn't guarantee that our plans will succeed. If in choosing our spouse we make no moral blunder, nor neglect any wisdom, we still have no special guarantee from God that the marriage will be a great success or will not end in divorce. Exercising God-given wisdom will obviously decrease the chances of this happening, but when we've done all we can we are left to trust God to work out all the details and take care of us no matter how that decision pans out. We are required to trust in and pin on hopes on God, rather than the circumstances of our lives. 

Led by the Spirit?

Sometimes in the New Testament a figure is shown to have been guided by the Holy Spirit in some way. For instance:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” (Acts 8:29)

Some think that such examples ought to give Christians an expectation that the Holy Spirit will communicate with them and give them instruction at least semi-regularly. Under this view a Christian should learn to listen and discern the Spirit's promptings which are often said to feel like a strong inner impression, or nudge. 

The trouble is that these passages do not describe the manner in which the Spirit communicated his message. There is no justification for reading notions of "inner impressions" into these passages. They just aren't there. In fact nowhere in the New Testament do you find Paul or anyone else giving instruction like this:

"Listening to the Spirit's promptings is very important! They'll be ambiguous at first, but they are like strong inner impressions. It can be hard to discern what is God, and what are your own thoughts and feelings, but with more practice, the better you'll get!"

I think the reason why no such instruction exists is because these encounters with the Spirit are not to be considered normal. And if they do happen, they do not require years of training in discernment to understand. I expect the Spirit is a very effective communicator and as such if he wants to tell you something it will be UTTERLY UNAMBIGUOUS. Knowing how frustrating practically the regular special communication view is, I find this take on the issue very liberating!

What of other "led by the Spirit" passages?

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. (Romans 8:12-14)

For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:17-18)

Do these passages support the view that we should expect and discern the Spirit's promptings? The context is key here. In both passages the authors are talking about moral concerns and are contrasting the flesh (that is, our weak sinful nature) with the Spirit. What is being discussed is not following some special communication from the Spirit, but following/pursuing the desires to please God that the Holy Spirit gives every Christian. This Spirit-given desire is contrary to the desires of the sinful nature, which are desires to sin against God. 

Again we must be wary of what presuppositions we bring to the text!

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Knowing God's will?

In continuing our look at God's policy of communication we need to examine some verses that claim Christians will be able to know God's will. Some Christians might argue that the "will" referred to is God's will for our individual lives, stuff like what house to buy, what career to pursue, who to marry etc. Are they right? Let's look at one such example,

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

The passage doesn't explicitly say that this "individual will" is what's in view here, so let's be careful not to read that into the text. Rather it seems likely that it is just God's "moral will" that is being discussed, after all Paul is instructing believers to be holy in this passage. So the passage is saying that our behaviour will be transformed when our thinking is renewed by it's alignment with God's truth. We will then be more readily able to discern what is morally good according to God and thus we shall worship him as he desires.

Absent any counter-observations by the individual will camp, this seems like the best way to read the passage. Next time you encounter the phrase "God's will" in a passage, consider what presumptions you might be reading into the text!

Gideon's fleece

A couple months back (over here) I started looking at God's "policy of communication" as taught in the Bible. That is, does God promise to communicate his will for our individual lives regularly outside of the words of the Bible? My answer is "no" and I began looking at verses that Christians might think supports an answer of "yes." Time to pick up that trail and examine another verse.

Gideon's fleece

Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. (Judges 6:36-40)

A Christian might use this account to validate an approach for finding God's will that relies on this sort of thought process, i.e. "if X happens it means you want me to do this, but if Y happens you want me to do that." But can this passage of Scripture really be used to be establish this sort of practise as normative? I don't think so!

First of all the passage is part of a historical narrative, it is recording what happened, not giving instruction for what believers ought to do. The sort of thinking Gideon displays in this passage was common to peoples of the Ancient Near East but no instructional passages in Scripture actually prescribe it. It seems then that God does not condone this practise but he did mercifully respond to Gideon's use of it at this particular point in history. 

In addition, Gideon's resquest seems to require supernatural power to accomplish which would be more telling of God's involvement, as opposed to a more mundane conditional like, "if Mary smiles at me you want me to marry her, if not you want me to never talk to her again." For these reasons then, this passage does not legitimise using the outcome of circumstances to discern God's will for our lives.       

Monday, 10 January 2011

Relay Update: 10/01/11

What is Relay? Relay is a discipleship program I'm doing this year and you can read all about it here. I'll be updating the blog from time to time with updates for all the people partnering with me during the year. And this is one of those updates!

It's been a while since the last time I wrote one of these. November was a monsterously busy month and I felt like December was spent just winding down from it. And then came Christmas of course. Before I begin a much needed recap I want to thank you all again for your prayers and financial support. Thanks to you guys I've made it through the first semester, something I wasn't always sure would happen! So again, thank you. Now to spill the beans ...

One of the exciting things about November in Christian Union life is that it is House Party season. I should probably clarify right? What House Party means in this context is different to what you'd ordinarily think it means! House Party is when a CU goes away together for a weekend to be encouraged and equipped to share the gospel on campus. There are times of teaching, worship, team games, and of course some relaxation and hanging out. In fact one of the most valuable opportunities that House Party provides is the chance for people to bond and draw close together as a missional community. I went to Stoke's House Party every year when I was a student and I always hated leaving because of how close everyone felt.

This year I attended three CU House Parties, Stoke's (which was a colaborative effort with Stafford and Crewe), Keele's, and Bangor's. Let me tell you, you are fairly done for after just one House Party, let alone three! They were all incredibly enjoyable though. The speakers for Stoke were a couple who'd spoken to the CU before and are both people I really respect. They challenged us to repent of sin in large areas of concern in the student world (y'know the suspects - relationships, drink and the like) and there was a great response to the call. Keele had a speaker who's been all over the world doing mission and boy did he have some stories to tell. But more than just having some impressive experiences he conveyed a deep understanding of the Bible and emphasised the need for apologetics in our witness (I am smiling as I write this). I think we all felt inspired by what he brought to us. Bangor's speaker was in fact Stoke's own Luke Cawley, my supervisor, hence the reason for my being there. He took us through some of the big themes of the Bible which was really useful for helping us to think from within a properly Christian worldview, something Christians often fail to do.

One of my favourite times from the whole House Party marathon has to be the plethora of DMC's me and Luke had with students at Keele's House Party (DMC by the way, stands for "deep meaningful chats" ... duh). There was hardly any stone unturned by the end of the Saturday night. We discussed everything from evolution to Biblical sexuality to how to interpret the book of Revelation. It was awesome to be able to address some genuine doubts as well as just hear people's thoughts. What was better is that it all seemed to be done in a manner that built people up rather than tear people down. Who doesn't love a good DMC right?

One new event added to the CU's calender in my region was "Convergence" a one day event where all the CU's in the area gathered together to get a sense of what God is doing through other CUs and to receive some quality teaching. We were lucky to have Mike Reeves, UCCF's theological adviser, come to talk to us on the uniqueness of Jesus. It was a very successful first time and we'll be having a Re-Convergence soon.

I also spent some time in Nottingham with the CU there before going to Keele's House Party. Luke was the speaker for their mission week (a week of events dedicated to proclaiming the gospel) and myself and fellow Relayer Jason pitched up to help out. I love how easy it is to feel at home among new CUs - the Nottingham bunch were lovely. I helped them to advertise their events, set stuff up and serve coffee to students who were heading to dreaded 9 o'clock lectures.

Besides travelling all over the place I was part of some exciting things back at base. Dave P, one of the freshers at Stoke who has an enthusiasm for apologetics, helped me launch 'Equip', the weekly apologetics workshop. We have a small group of people regularly attending and it's going well so far! We're just trying to learn how best to run it and how to make it the best possible service for the CU that we can.

I also had a few speaking engagements which made me happy as I love preparing talks (even though I nearly die of nerves every time I'm about to give one). I gave a talk on the so-called "doubting Thomas" narrative in John 20 at three CUs and got some helpful feedback after each one. By the third delivery, after taking the criticisms into account, I was quite happy with it! My initial thought was to make doubt the focus of the talk but the more I looked at the passage the more I considered that doubt really isn't the focus of the narrative at all. Instead I picked up on the "signs" theme that occurs throughout John's gospel and saw John 20 as presenting the final "sign", the final evidence of Jesus' identity and mission. I argued that our evangelism needs to focus on giving people these "signs"- on giving them the evidence of who Jesus is. I also got asked to talk last minute at a 3 course meal event aimed at non-Christians in Stoke on the question "Is Christianity Relevant Today?" I'd given a talk on the same topic the year before (with a fairly distrastous Q&A after!) but I decided to completely re-write it. To crudely characterise, the original talk was basically "Why are you asking why it's relevant? The question is, is it true?" ... this time it was "it's relevant because IF it's true, it means this." The feedback was very positive!

Sadly because of all the time away and time spent preparing talks I wasn't able to meet with the students individually and in small groups as often as I did in the first couple months. It was still really encouraging when I did though - these guys are really growing in their faith and some are stepping into leadership positions within the CU and elsewhere. Dead exciting!

My own personal study time has continued to be challenging. The core study modules on the nature of God's Word and God's sovereignty have helped me to clarify my views and my self-elected study on what the Bible says about evolution/the age of the earth has been very exciting. I'm starting to come to some conclusions and have begun writing up my findings. When I'm done I'll probably present the write-up bit by bit on the blog or in full to whoever wants a copy. I would appreciate it if you could pray for me that I would let my study impact the way I live and not just the way I think.   

In fact allow me to suggest some things that I need prayer for:

~ that I would have the right attitude toward study
~ that the new Stoke and Keele committee leadership team would settle into their new roles and develop their CUs as MISSION teams
~ that I would figure out how to best spend time with the students I meet with this semester
~ that I would grow in purity
~ that the CUs would be used to bring people to salvation this semester
~ that I would be financially provided for

I have to be honest, that last prayer point is a biggie. At the moment I just don't have enough money coming in to live. If you could support me financially it would be amazing. You can download and print forms to do that over here http://www.uccf.org.uk/relay/give-to-relay-workers.htm If you could think about whether you can it would be most appreciated.

Much love to you all and God bless

Martin